student using laptop computer

The concept of block-based computer programming seems simple enough: drag and drop puzzle-like pieces together instead of typing out long strings of complex commands to get a computer to comply.

What is more commonly known as block coding has become an exciting and accessible way to introduce kids to the basics of computer science.

But two Howard County Public School colleagues at Running Brook Elementary School discovered that block coding could go beyond introductory games: these interlocking virtual pieces can string together one-by-one to tell a story by a student who struggled to find the right words or give voice to a child who has rarely or never spoken.

Kristina John-Gabriel, an instructional technology teacher, and Shari B. Dardick Lorch, an occupational therapist, took their passion for working with kids with diverse developmental and learning needs, looked at the future of both students and technology, and designed a unique program to help kids grow educationally and therapeutically.

Kristina John-Gabriel
Kristina John-Gabriel

“You can look at it and say, ‘Oh, there’s just colored puzzle pieces that they put together,’” said Kristina, who received a master’s in STEM leadership from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a master’s certificate in Instructional Technology from the Johns Hopkins University.

“And yes, that’s all it is. But—there’s the problem-solving: How do I get it from this point to this point, and how do I change the character, and how do I get a sound, because you can record sounds. So I don’t want to say it’s just puzzle pieces. It’s so much more.”

Kristina and Shari are taking the innovative and intuitive technological mechanics of block-code programs designed for kids and applying it to the mechanics of minds that thrive on order, images, color, sequences, and predictability.

The two had started a pilot project at Running Brook with one student who was on the autism spectrum, refined it, then developed the application with enough confidence and enthusiasm to submit their work to present to an international conference in Budapest this summer.

Their program, “Acquisition of Block Code to Support Students in Special Education with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” was promptly accepted for the Scratch 2017 conference.

scratch mascot - cat and programming blocksScratch is one of the popular block-coding programs that Kristina and Shari have been using as part of their project at Running Brook. This program, which is designed for 8- to 16-year-olds, and its companion program, ScratchJr for 5- to 7-year-olds, are educational programming languages that were developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The programs are free to use and download, and users are encouraged to share their creations on Scratch’s main website.

Presenting in Budapest would give Kristina and Shari the opportunity to share their work with their peers on a global stage and validate what they already knew and believed—that their application could work outside of the traditional educational realm.

Shari B. Dardick Lorch
Shari B. Dardick Lorch

“It’s not every day that MIT asks you to come and talk,” said Shari, a master’s level clinician who holds multiple degrees in occupational therapy and certifications in educational administration. She has been with Howard County Public Schools for 10 years and has been an occupational therapist for 25 years.

However, the funding to attend the August conference would not be available, and the two said they would consider resubmitting their work for another conference closer to home.

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Kristina and Shari’s project grew out of addressing one young student’s needs in the fall of 2015. The child, who was on the autism spectrum and had an IEP, began working with Kristina on coding for 15 minutes a day.

“We didn’t even know where to begin,” Kristina said.

Kristina had attended a coding workshop, so she worked to tailor a curriculum to the student’s skill level.

The student started with a pre-coding board game called Robot Turtles, and as his skills developed, moved on to ScratchJr, and eventually the more sophisticated Scratch.

The idea was to use the skills needed to fit the puzzle pieces together to support the student’s IEP goals and objectives, such as focusing on tasks.

The broader idea, the two educators began to see, was that they could use the block coding programs’ use of colors on each piece, concept of precise sequencing, and necessity for consistent order for educational and therapeutic goals for other students who had difficulty learning in traditional ways.

“How can you look at a string of directions and apply that to reading? How can you look at the number of steps that a character needs to move in a game or in a program to be able to look at one-to-one correspondence in kindergarten?” Shari said. “It really became breaking those things down and being able to apply it to the IEP objectives, because you can do so much.”

Once Running Brook’s and the county’s administration saw how the first student excelled with block coding, Kristina and Shari were given the go-ahead to expand their pilot project to include more students this past school year.

“They were impressed with us and said, ‘Keep going,’” Shari said.

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Kristina and Shari’s focus is to expand the project at their school, as well as throughout the county and state.

This past year, their project included a small group of preschoolers who used a coding system called Osmo, which can attach to an iPad and uses tiles that are connected to control movements in a computer game.

To these young students, they see bright characters and colors on a familiar iPad screen. But they are also learning left from right, how to make decisions, how to count, and how to follow directions based on how they learn best.

“This is focused. It’s not just me pulling them and going, ‘Let’s play on the computer,’ or giving some computer time as a reward. We’re actually working,” Kristina said. “I’m always thinking, ‘How can I support IEP objectives?”

Kristina and Shari’s ultimate goal is to give students the foundation they need as they move through the educational system and out into the workforce. For this coming year, they received a grant through the Bright Minds Foundation, an organization that supports educational innovation in the Howard County Public School System. This grant will allow them to purchase more technological tools for Running Brook so that more students there can learn computer programming.

“The students know the investment we have, and I think that’s part of why we see [their] blossoming because they know Kristina’s in there every day in the trenches, and they see me on a regular basis, and the teachers in preschool are reinforcing it in the classroom. And I think the more that we are doing this as a school, the more we’re going to see the growth from this,” Shari said. “It’s been amazing and I think it’s very energizing just looking at this and thinking at what the capacity could be, not just for students here at Running Brook or students here in Howard County, but students in Maryland and in the United States.”